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Robitaille Receives The Ultimate Honor

by Gann Matsuda

January 21, 2007

LOS ANGELES — The night Los Angeles Kings fans, and what is likely to be the lone bright spot in a less-than-dismal season for the Western Conference cellar-dwelling Kings, finally came on Saturday night when the franchise honored superstar left wing Luc Robitaille by retiring his jersey number 20 in a ceremony prior to their game against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Robitaille’s retired jersey number 20 joined four others in the rafters inside Staples Center, including Rogie Vachon (30), Marcel Dionne (16), Dave Taylor (18) and Wayne Gretzky (99).

The team cast a bit of a damper on the evening’s festivities when they dropped a 3-2 decision to the Coyotes (see related story, Kings Can’t Win One For Luc On His Night), but a standing-room-only crowd of 18,346 fans were on hand to see Robitaille’s jersey retired and very likely cared little about the outcome of the game with the Kings nowhere close to competing for a playoff spot.

The Kings decorated the building in honor of Robitaille, who is the NHL’s all-time leader in goals and points scored by a left wing, by draping “Thank You 20” signs over walls in the corner and projecting images of the back of his jersey high on walls in each corner of the arena.

The words, “Thank You Luc” were painted on the boards on each side of the neutral zone, while the number 20 was painted on the ice behind each net and on the boards in each corner.

Prior to the ceremony, the Kings players came out for warm-ups, all wearing jerseys with Robitaille’s name and number 20 on their backs and a commemorative patch on the front in honor of their former teammate.

As as the ceremony began, long-time Kings fans, primarily season ticket holders, lined the red carpet leading to a riser at center ice, symbolic of the strong relationship Robitaille had with the fans from day one of his National Hockey League career.

“When you talk about players who have special places in the hearts of fans, because of the way they played and because of the way they handled themselves, there’s none better than Luc Robitaille,” said Jim Fox, who played with Robitaille for a little over two seasons, and is now the Kings television color commentator.

“The relationship. That’s the one thing Luc always had from the day he got here to the day he left, added Fox. “It went back and forth a couple of times, but he was always welcomed here because he just had this thing for the fans, and they had it for him.”

Kings alumni including Bob Berry, Jimmy Carson, Mike Donnelly, Steve Duchesne, Daryl Evans, Stephane Fiset, Jim Fox, Garry Galley, Butch Goring, Wayne Gretzky, Bob Kudelski, Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley, Barry Melrose, Jay Miller, Bernie Nicholls, Larry Playfair, Larry Robinson, Rogie Vachon and Jay Wells were all present for the ceremony.

They all came, including Kurri, who flew in from Finland, because of how much respect they have for Robitaille.

“Larry Robinson, Hall-of-Famer is here. Jari Kurri, a Hall-of-Famer. Of course, Wayne Gretzky is here coaching the Coyotes, another Hall-of-Famer. They all came back,” said Bob Miller, who is in his 34th season of broadcasting Kings games and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. “Barry Melrose, the only coach who led the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals. He’s back. So many other people who have meant a lot to Luc and have been influential in Luc’s career are able to be back here.”

“It’s special,” said Duchesne, who was a Kings rookie in 1986-87, along with Carson and Robitaille. “You have these guys here—Gretzky, Vachon and all the special players who played here. He deserves it.”

Robitaille’s family, including his parents, brother, sister and his wife and two boys, joined Luc.

Former Kings trainer Peter Demers and former equipment manager Peter Millar were in attendance, as were Kings Governor Tim Leiweke and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bob Miller emceed the ceremony, which included video tributes from Mark Messier, who played with Robitaille when they were with the New York Rangers, and even Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (the Lakers and Kings train/practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo).

Tributes from Dionne and former Kings right wing, general manager and current Director of Amateur Development Dave Taylor were read by Miller.

Taylor was unable to attend due to the death of his father in Canada, and Dionne had a long-standing commitment.

“Marcel had a commitment with a little girl who was really sick,” Robitaille explained. “It was a commitment he had a long time ago. He’s an honorable man, and he will honor any commitment he has. And he really couldn’t change it. I totally understand.”

Dionne’s absence was very noticeable, given his tremendous influence on Robitaille, who lived in Dionne’s home during his rookie season.

“He’s always been in my heart,” added Robitaille. “I owe him the beginning of my career. I’ll be grateful to Marcel forever.”

During the ceremony, Fox talked about Robitaille’s strong relationship with the fans, in addition to his accomplishments and skill on the ice.

“No one shared the enthusiasm and passion for the game more,” said Fox.

And when he said that Robitaille had soft hands, a great shot and blazing speed, he turned to Robitaille and said jokingly, “Luc, two out of three ain’t bad.”

Anyone who has watched Robitaille knows that speed was definitely not one of his incredible talents.

Melrose, who named Robitaille as the team captain to fill-in for an injured Wayne Gretzky to start the 1992-93 season when the Kings went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, also praised the soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer during the ceremony.

“Why did the people love Luc?” asked Melrose. “Because when you went to see Luc Robitaille play, you never felt cheated. You saw him smile, you saw him cheer, you saw him celebrate.”

“Others may look at Luc’s retired jersey and think of goals or points,” added Melrose, his voice cracking with emotion. “But I’ll be thinking that every time I watched Luc Robitaille play, he reminded me of why I loved the game.”

And love of the game is exactly what drove Robitaille, night in and night out.

“I didn’t start for this,” Robitaille said during the ceremony. “It wasn’t about money. I just wanted to play hockey. I wanted to play in the NHL.”

“I wasn’t the fastest player and I had flaws, but I was a student of the game and every day I was grateful to live my dream,” Robitaille added, addressing his remarks directly to the fans. “I heard your chants. Every time I touched the puck or took a shot I heard you. I will take this to the day I die.”

And as the ceremony concluded, Luc’s sons, Jesse and Steven, hoisted the banner bearing their father’s name and number to the rafters, officially becoming the fifth jersey number to be retired by the Kings.

And honoring Robitaille, a teammate or player who meant so much to his former teammates and coaches, was the reason so many of them came out to be a part of his night.

“You knew right away, his first year, he scored 45 goals,” said Duchesne. “He would talk in the locker room, and he was always positive. He was always in a good mood. You play against him on the ice, he’ll hit and you hate him. And then after the game, he’s such a positive figure. You want to surround yourself with players like that. All the players wanted to win for him. That’s the type of guy he is.”

“He played so well throughout his whole career,” added Duchesne. “He made me a better player. He made everybody play better.”

Hall-of-Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, who was a huge star for the Montreal Canadiens, played for the Kings in his final seasons in the NHL, and eventually became their head coach, played with and coached Robitaille.

“He had a hunger in front of the net that was unbelievable,” said Robinson. “No one made more out of less chances to put the puck in the net than Luc.”

“Maybe he wasn’t the greatest skater in the world, but he had tremendous balance. He was hard to knock off his feet. And as I say, he didn’t need that many chances.”

And Robinson was quick to point out that Robitaille’s talents were not limited to the ice.

“He would always come up with something funny to say,” said Robinson. “When things got kind of tight and nervous, he could always loosen things up. That was one of his key attributes.”

“A lot of people didn’t think that he was that serious about it, but he was. Deep down, the fact that he kept everybody loose, that kept him loose. And he never got that nervous.”

And Bob Miller, who called every game Robitaille played for the Kings, reminisced about one of his favorite Kings players as well.

“I saw him from the start of his career, when he was Rookie of the Year, right on through when he became the Kings’ all-time leading goal scorer, and the retirement here,” Miller explained. “It was just tremendous. Yes, he left a couple of times, but he always came back. He always considered the Kings his team.”

“He had so many great moments here, so many great seasons. And I don’t think there was ever a greater ambassador between the Kings and their fans than Luc Robitaille.”

And the greatest player ever to play the game talked about what a special night it was for Robitaille.

“It’s a great night,” said Gretzky. “I told Luc that it’s a special night, not only for all the years of hard work he put in, but for his Mom and Dad, for his wife and kids. Make sure he enjoys the night and relishes it. I know the fans in LA loved him. He worked hard here and he loves the game.”

Gretzky also shared the significance of a jersey retirement from the honored players’ perspective.

“There’s nothing like it,” he explained. “We’re all kids, and we’re all dreaming one day of playing in the NHL against guys like Marcel Dionne, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson. Then just to make the league is something special. But to have your number retired is something you don’t ever think is going to happen to you in your career.”

“This is a first step for [Robitaille],” he added. “He’s had his number retired and I’m sure he’s going to be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer.”

And Gretzky’s current players were moved by the ceremony which they watched from their players bench.

“It was a great ceremony,” said Coyotes center Steven Reinprecht, who was Robitaille’s teammate with the Kings in the 2000-01 season before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche with defenseman Rob Blake. “Luc had an unbelievable career, and just to be able to be a part of that and watch it was special for everybody in this dressing room.”

After the ceremony, a very humbled Luc Robitaille met with the media after the first period of the almost insignificant game that followed.

“It was a memorable night because I wanted to speak from my heart and really share my thoughts on what made me who I was as a player,” Robitaille explained about his rather lengthy remarks in what was supposed to be a 38-minute ceremony that lasted about one hour.

“I was just a kid playing a game,” said Robitaille. “I didn’t set out for this. My dream was to play in the NHL. The next thing I know, I have my jersey hanging in the rafters of an NHL arena. To have my jersey in the rafters, it’s impossible for me to describe because I loved the game so much, I gave so much to it and to get rewarded like that, it’s just amazing.”

“It is the ultimate honor,” Robitaille added. “I can come back here and bring my grand kids one day and see my name at the top of a building in a city the size of LA, with all the stars in this wasn’t what I set out to do, but it certainly is the greatest honor I’ve gotten.”

Not to mention that his jersey now joins some very lofty company in the rafters at Staples Center.

“Marcel was the one who took me under his wing,” said Robitaille. “I remember meeting him, already knowing that he was a legend when I was living in his house,” said Robitaille. “Wayne being my idol and being here and the impact he had in Los Angeles, and a guy like Rogie—I always called him Mr. Vachon because he was the [general manager] and the big boss.”

“To be there with those guys it’s really amazing,” added Robitaille. “I mean, I’m next to Wayne Gretzky. It’s really amazing.”

Just like his life.

“My life exceeds any expectations I’ve had,” said Robitaille. “I’ve heard about tonight for a long time, and I’ve seen a few other jerseys retired. But this was my life. I gave everything I had to this game. It’s something I love and it’s exceeded everything I expected.”

• Editor’s Note: In honor of Luc Robitaille’s jersey retirement, is re-publishing a “classic” story written in honor of Robitaille’s retirement from the NHL (announced on April 11, 2006). The article is entitled Move Over Taylor: Robitaille Is The New King Of Kings. We hope you enjoy it.

Gann Matsuda, who has been writing about the Kings since 1986, is the News Editor for
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